McCann's Woodward: Japan demands 'grown-up strategy'

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John Woodward became McCann's new chief strategy officer for Japan in March.
John Woodward became McCann's new chief strategy officer for Japan in March.

McCann Worldgroup Japan's chief strategy officer talks about changing attitudes in the country as it gears up for the 2020 Olympics

TOKYO — Nearly six months into his role as McCann Worldgroup Japan's chief strategy officer, John Woodward shares his impressions of a unique market that is showing encouraging signs of entering a new, more positive phase after years of setbacks.

Woodward, who assumed his role in April, is the former global planning director for Publicis Worldwide. A British national previously based in Paris, he sees some commonality between France and Japan due to both countries' highly developed appreciation of luxury and craft, but believes Britan and Japan to be more closely aligned in terms of thinking styles.

He readily admits that at this stage he understands very little about Japan, but is helping to act as a bridge to global best practice as the country looks to develop relatively under-exploited areas such as online video and create business models more suited to the global marketplace. 

What have you learned about Japan since taking on your role?

I’ve only scratched the surface. I’m still in that delightful stage in a new job and a new culture where every day someone tells you something that completely overturns what you thought you were starting to learn, and I hope I never lose that sense of humility. I would be a dangerous person if I thought I knew it all.

What did you expect when you moved? What has matched those expectations, and what has surprised you?

At a practical level, Japan is far more "foreigner friendly" than I expected, at least in central Tokyo. There’s a great deal of openness. In part, that reflects a big effort before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, but at a deeper level I think it reflects a desire to integrate into the global economy, and a growing cultural confidence.

Another thing that I think is surprising for a lot of people when they come here is the dynamism, prosperity and modernity of the market. It might seem strange, but for so long now the prevailing news story in the international press has been about the demographic crisis, the lost decade, etc. You’d expect a place where everything was misery and suffering.

There’s no automatic growth like there is in the rest of Asia or even the US. Agencies have to come up with real strategies and real innovation, as opposed to cool things that are entertaining.

But when you come here from Europe, what strikes you is that you feel the economic struggle in Europe much more. There, there are people sleeping on the streets, real problems with public infrastructure, violence and aggression, victimisation of outsiders. Not in Japan.

How are you approaching your role in Japan, which is after all quite different to any other market? Where do you feel there are gaps, and where do you feel you can apply knowledge and experience from previous roles?

I am spending a lot of time listening, and will carry on like that, because you can’t hope to come up with the ideas yourself in a culture as different as this. As a foreigner, you are most unlikely to have more than the obvious insights. You have to trust your team. You have to ask them questions. You have to give them the time to think and communicate with you, which might not be easy for all of them in English. You have to empower them, set an ambition and make them excited about living up to it.

In terms of what I can bring, part of it is certainly to be a bridge. There is an interest in new techniques and business models which have really exploded in the US and even Europe in the last two to three years. I’m speaking about online video, which is still relatively new here; startup culture, which has revolutionized whole industries in other parts of the world.

Sometimes these areas aren’t as widely discussed in Japan because there’s a significant language barrier. But when you bring understanding of them into the market, it’s immensely stimulating to clients and staff, and they can work on changing them or optimising them through a Japanese filter, as Japan has been so excellent at doing through other waves of global learning.

What are clients asking for — is there a common theme?

Growth, basically. That might sound trite, but there are clients in some markets that might not ask for it in that way. Whether Western or Japanese, there’s no automatic growth like there is in the rest of Asia or even the US. So you have to make growth happen. I think that sets the bar high for agencies. It means they have to come up with real strategies and real innovation, as opposed to cool things that are entertaining.

It also means that you have to be proactive. It’s not enough to run a service culture and wait for clients to do things. You have to be looking for business opportunities rather than ways to optimise communication. It’s what I would call "grown-up strategy."

A lot of the traditional habits of Japanese thought, like creating a harmonious, caring society, are turning out to be quite far-sighted.

Companies are asking for growth in different ways. Western clients tend to have a high demand for digital, because they are usually smaller than Japanese companies and looking for an edge. Japanese companies are looking for advice on expanding regionally or globally. Often this is a relatively new venture for them, so it’s not just about defining what a brand can stand for — it’s advice on [things like] how to structure an international marketing team, how to sequence the move overseas.

What consumer trends are you aware of in Japan, and what changes do you see happening?

One of the big ones is a resurgence in Japanese pride. The Japanese have always been among the most proud of their local culture, but there’s a renewed growth in that interest, especially among the young. It’s partly due to the Olympics of course, but also to a sense that Japan is addressing quite successfully how to live in a "postmodern" way, dealing with the demographic and environmental challenges of a super-advanced economy. In some ways, Japan is addressing these issues ahead of the rest of the world. And a lot of the traditional habits of Japanese thought, like creating a harmonious, caring society, are turning out to be quite far-sighted — very old, very deep thinking habits that actually have a lot of relevance to the next chapter of the human story. People are proud of that.

So this phase of Olympic pride is different from the previous one. In 1964, it was a lot about technological prowess, and showing that Japan had overtaken the West. This time, I think it’s about a confidence that overseas visitors will be fascinated by Japan itself, which is quite a different thing, and suggests that brands — especially foreign brands — have to be very thoughtful about how they reflect people’s feelings about their own culture.

What do you feel most optimistic about with regard to Japan, and where do you have reservations?

I think there is a renewed sense of innovation and growth. Some of the reforms on things like corporate governance and the increase in overseas investment in Japanese-listed companies are helping to melt the ice. Plus, it’s no longer quite such a given that China growth will continue forever, so I think companies around the world are again looking at Japan. The Olympics is providing a sort of trigger to re-assess Japan, remember that it’s actually a very big market, and realize that things have been quietly changing for the better for a while now.

The challenge, though, is adapting to digital business in a globalised marketplace. The pace of digital business favours smaller, more agile businesses with less hierarchy, able to move at speed — and traditionally, Japan hasn’t been good at developing those. That’s why there seems to be an innovation gap. To address this, flatter companies need to emerge, that are more integrated with the world outside Japan. More Lines, in other words. They are starting to come.

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